Glossary: What is a trope, and what do tropes have to do with crime?

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This blog uses the word “trope” a lot. Let’s pause for a bit to talk about what a trope is and does.

In the knowledge fields of rhetoric and poetics, a trope refers to any device that performs a substitutive role. That means a trope is a kind of replacement: a word or phrase that stands in for something else.

From the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics:

As devices of rhetorical style, tropes give language what Aristotle calls a “foreign air” (xénos), using strange words to refer to familiar concepts or assigning novel meaning to ordinary words (Rhetoric).

Tropes allow language to mean more or something other, leading to I.A. Richards’s [The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936)] position that a metaphor allows two or more ideas to be carried by a single word or expression (the vehicle), its meaning (the tenor) resulting from their “interaction” on the basis of a relation (the ground).

Literally, the word derives from a Greek word that means “to turn,” so a trope is a turn or redirect within language/text to something else.

In narrative theory (and related frameworks, such as film studies), the word trope refers to not only words or phrases that do poetic work within a sentence or limited space but also to images, themes, motifs, character types, plot types or even mini-narratives that represent ideas beyond that apparent meaning, or that repeat ideas across texts or between texts (even from different kinds of media, like from a literary genre to a film genre).

So another aspect of the term “trope” that is important is not just its “substitutive” or metaphorical function but also its “transportation” function: it transports cultural content from one place to another.

A trope is a culturally portable idea or representation.

Cultural theorists like Jaqcues Derrida and Michel Foucault of the latter-half of the 20th century used the framework of the “trope” to study representations and cultural constructions of ideas, social values, and practices across different historical and cultural contexts. Theorists working in this vein considered representations of all aspects of life and society — from historical and legal documents to poetry and other creative compositions — as constructed through tropes that needed to be studied for their implied and associative meanings rather than as transparent representations of culture. And, from a social-scientific perspective, anthropologists similarly use the trope framework to study social relationships and cultural “performances” in daily life.

And beyond simply containing information about social life and values that can be critiqued, tropes might also be valuable in constructing and circulating new ideas that can transform culture and social relationships:

The trope concept is an integral part of an enduring debate about the role of the figurative both in human communication and in bringing about social and cultural change. Cultures may vary in their stability over time, but all cultures are dynamic to one degree or another and can be persuaded to change the structure of their social relationships and turn in a new direction. The degree to which the tropes—themselves micro-turnings of thought—are influential in these macro-level social turnings has been a central question of tropology. (“Tropes in Contemporary Thought,” Free Encyclopedia, science.jrank.org)

In a recent blog post that pointed to some quantitative research of depictions of crime victims and perpetrators in U.S. television dramas, I suggested that the word “stereotype” that the researchers used to refer to the cultural depictions or constructions of “character types” in these dramas could also be replaced with the word “trope” in the way we’ve been using it in this blog to talk about crime tropes.

Why is the word important for this blog, and for cultural analysis of crime representations?

The word helps us remember that references to and representations of crime make use of cultural tools — like rhetorical devices. It also helps us follow specific configurations of crime across different contexts and examples. Finally, using the word “trope” when considering representations of crime helps us analyze the social and cultural values or ideas that are packed into the representation and circulated through the media.

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